For all of the first-class treatment applicants give to their Common App essay, the activities list is all too often relegated to steerage. If antiquated steamship analogies do little for you, a more apropos comparison might present the essay as the mean, attention-hogging prom queen in a teen movie, and the activities list as the nice, quiet girl, who also looks like a model, but no one notices because she wears glasses and puts her hair up.

You get the point—a poorly crafted activities list is one of the most common issues we encounter when working with students, even those with Ivy-caliber credentials and otherwise flawless applications. Yet, as already alluded to, this list rarely receives appropriate attention from applicants, perhaps because it, rather deceptively, appears to be a fairly rote exercise; more of a chore of filling in boxes than an opportunity to tell a unique and compelling story.

Our five rules articulated below will get you ready to tackle this often underestimated component of the college application process.

Rule #1: Ask—why are you including this activity?

Perhaps humans simply possess an unstoppable psychological drive to fill any blank space they see with something, anything. It would certainly explain much of the modern experience: 24-hour news, suburban sprawl, or that one drawer in your kitchen that is overflowing with useless items you can’t bring yourself to throw away (C’mon, you know that Krazy Glue dried out six years ago and what are those watch batteries even for? No one in your house has owned a watch since 1998).

A similar compulsion rears its head when students see an activities list with ten blank templates. Your first thought is, “Okay, I’m going to fill these ten spots even if I have to include the ten seconds last week when I picked up a stray Sierra Mist can off of the sidewalk and tossed it in the recycling bin. That can count as volunteer work, right?”

When it comes to your activities section, we recommend being judicious with what you include. Having fewer than ten activities is not going to hurt your chances at admission—seriously, we promise. When you start to brainstorm which activities to include on your list, begin by asking:

  1. How do I spend my time currently?
  2. How have I spent my time throughout high school (both in and outside of school)?
  3. What have I done in the past or currently that communicates something about who I am, what I’m proud of, and what I’ve accomplished?

The activities that come to mind could include clubs, volunteer work, paid employment, athletics, or musical/artistic/theatrical pursuits. The best activities to include are ones that you’ve engaged with on a regular basis over an extended period of time. For example, volunteering at a soup kitchen for a summer or on a weekly basis through your place of worship should definitely be included; volunteering once for 45 minutes might not make the cut.

Rule #2: Understand the order of operations 

In math, we remember the order of operations through the presumably embarrassing behavior of our Dear Aunt Sally (please excuse her). To date, no helpful mnemonic exists for the order in which you should list activities on your Common App, yet it is extremely important to master the rules of this game. One frequent move is listing your activities in pure chronological order (or straight reverse chronological order) which is highly problematic. If you were asked to succinctly tell someone a captivating version of your life you wouldn’t lead off with:

Baby/Toddler, 2001-2004
Passed meconium, cried, cried some more, mastered object-permanence, etc.

Putting your most important activities first is the way to go. This may flow in something close to a reverse chronological order since the activities that most demonstrate your passion, leadership, and abilities are likely ones that you stuck with over the years. While there may be no hard and fast set of rules telling you to address parenthesis before exponents, there is a correct thought-process to adopt while ordering your activities.

Sample thought process…

Meet Mark. He was the vice-president of his class as a freshman but became disillusioned with the seedy world of high school politics and never participated in student government again. Since his foray into public service ended at age 14, even though his title of VP was impressive, this would make a poor choice to sit atop his list, Mark next turned his attention to the mock trial and tennis teams, both of which he continued through his senior year. In fact, as a junior, his team qualified for the National High School Mock Trail Championship and he plans to continue debate into college. As a senior, Mark is on the varsity tennis team—he’s not talented enough to be NCAA material but is interested in joining a club team.

As we help Mark decide how to order these three activities let’s review some important considerations. We are looking to give preference for activities that…

  • You plan to continue in college.
  • Demonstrate commitment and dedication.
  • You have participated in state or national-level competitions (winning something is always a huge bonus).
  • Show off your leadership skills.
  • Are recent.

With these rules in mind, we can determine that Mark should put Mock Trial first—it’s something he plans to continue in college, has participated in a national competition, has been involved with for three years and is still, presently doing. Tennis should come second, since he has shown dedication to the sport and may play at a club or intramural level at college. While vice president of his class was the most impressive title he ever held, it was only for one year in 9th grade, making it the clear third place entry in this activities list.

Rule #3: Use your limited space wisely

A famous, albeit likely apocryphal story, goes like this: Ernest Hemingway is having lunch with his buddies and bets them that he can craft a complete story in six words. He wins by scribbling six words on a napkin: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Putting aside the earth-shatteringly depressing nature of the story, it is a great example of the power of words in a limited space. Plenty of 100,000 word novels have failed to communicate as much as those six words. Hold yourself to a high standard in this regard and tighten up your sentences. Maximize the impact of what you say through the use of active verbs. Lop off extraneous words and get right to the point. Include pertinent details that make your description less generic and better highlight your achievements.

Bad Example: Money was raised by my organization when we put on a 24-hour relay leading to many donations to a charity which works to cure pediatric cancer.

Improved Example: Organized 24-hour relay, attended by 300+ community members, raised over $6,000 for pediatric cancer research.

Rule #4: Use the fields strategically  

You only have a precious 150 characters with which to demonstrate your duties and achievements with each activity. Many students make the mistake of restating (or stating for the first time), their role, the name of the organization, or the years in which they participated in the description box. The smarter move is to instead state all of this information in the 50 character “Activity Name” section and through the checkboxes provided in which to indicate your years of participation.

Avoiding redundancy will save you space and allow you to properly flesh out your description of what you actually did that is impressive. Here’s an example of a right and wrong way to execute this strategy:

Activity Name: Editor, The Muse Literary Magazine

Grades: 10-12

Wasteful Activity Description: Edited poems and works of fiction for The Muse, our high school’s literary magazine, from sophomore year to present.

As you can see, most of the 150 character space to show-off achievements was wasted with information that was already stated elsewhere.

  • We already know that you were the editor from your title.
  • We already know that you edited The Muse and this is your school’s lit mag.
  • You already checked off that you participated in the activity from 10th-12th

Better Activity Description: Managed staff of seven students in creating monthly periodical; earned First Class Distinction from National Council for Teachers of English in 2018.

Rule #5: Don’t ignore the rules of writing

For whatever reason, even the sharpest applicants tend to eschew the conventions of good writing. Perhaps it is the similar character count to Twitter that seems to invite a “covfefe”-like outpouring of poor grammar, awkward syntax, and a display of weak vocabulary. Here are some key things to remember, based on errors we frequently see students make.

  • If you are presently engaged in an activity, use present tense.
  • Don’t get repetitive. There is no shame in Googling synonyms if you have to.
  • Use your normal, intelligent-person vocabulary even if your description is in list form.
  • Proofread your list carefully. It may require multiple reads to catch all of your typos in this unusual format.
Final Thoughts
  • Select the school-based and outside activities that say the most about who you are and how you spend your time.
  • Place your activities in an order that highlights your commitment, dedication, talent, and accomplishments. Activities that you are presently engaged with and/or are planning on continuing in college should take precedence.
  • Communicate as much as you can in limited space. Avoid clunky, space-eating phrases, use active verbs, and replace generic statements with specific details.
  • Take full advantage of the “Activity Name” field to better utilize your space in the “Activity Description.”
  • Craft and proofread this section with every bit as much care as your essay.

Follow these simple rules and, in the end, your activities list will take off its glasses, let down its hair and become the envy of the whole prom. Oh yeah, and admissions officers will like it too.

Andrew Belasco

A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.